Group E Structures

Uaxactun is one of scores of Maya architectural complexes located in the Peten, a forested lowland region in northern Guatemala. From modest beginnings in the first millennium B.C.E. it grew to become one of the most important Maya cities, the focus of a city-state that thrived for several centuries before finally collapsing around c.e. 900.

A rather peculiar group of structures at Uaxactun, known as Group E, was identified as far back as the 1920s as potentially having astronomical significance. The structures lie on opposite (western and eastern) sides of a plaza located on the eastern side of the ceremonial center of the city. (There are also structures to the north and south of the plaza, but these seem to be of secondary significance.) In around C.E. 200 an eight meter- (twenty-six foot-) high pyramid was built on the western side of the plaza, known to archaeologists as Structure E-VII-sub. Later, this pyramid was covered by a fourteen meter- (forty-five foot-) high pyramid, Structure E-VII. Across the plaza on the eastern side was an elongated platform running lengthwise from north to south, upon which there were three buildings ("temples" E-I, E-II, and E-III), evenly spaced. Viewed from the western pyramid, the three buildings to the east are approximately in line with sunrise at the summer solstice, equinoxes, and winter solstice, respectively. This was one of the earliest astronomical alignments to be recognized in Maya architecture, and the site became renowned as a "solar observatory."

A detailed investigation in the 1980s by archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni and architect Horst Hartung confirmed that the solstitial and equinoctial alignments were precise, provided that the observer was standing about 3.5 meters (11 feet) up the western pyramid. This, together with various strands of archaeological evidence, led them to propose that the whole structure evolved in three stages. At first, E-VII-sub was a truncated pyramid standing only to about 3.5 meters (11 feet) high, and the eastern mound was a simple rectangular platform. An observer standing on the western pyramid would have been able to track the sun rising along the horizon behind—and just about level with—the eastern platform. The length of the platform just spanned the solar rising range. At some stage, the three "temples" were added. These provided points of reference against which precise observations of the solstices and equinoxes could now be made. When E-VII-sub was completed to its full height, such observations could still be made by standing at the appropriate level on the eastern staircase, but all this changed when a new, larger pyramid was built over the top. An observer on this new pyramid would see the eastern horizon well above the eastern temples, and the precise alignments would no longer be functional.

A skeptic examining the Group E alignments might well ask whether they could have arisen fortuitously. One approach to this problem would be to look for similar structures elsewhere, to see if they systematically incorporate similar alignments. Such an approach has been used extensively in Europe, both to confirm suspected megalithic alignments and—as at Drombeg stone circle in Ireland—to isolate megalithic alignments that seem convincing in themselves but become less so when the site concerned is considered as one of a group. In fact, over fifty architecturally similar structures are now known to exist at other Maya sites, mostly concentrated in the Peten within about a hundred kilometers (sixty miles) of Uaxactun: they are so similar to Group E that they have become known as E-group structures.

These are broadly characterized by an eastern platform in the shape of an elongated rectangle supporting three equally spaced buildings in a roughly north-south line. There are several variants, including some with three separate constructions on the eastern side. Many of these, while clearly preserving the general form, are so irregular that they could not reproduce the solstitial and equinoctial alignments found at Uaxactun, at least in anything like a similar way.

One's immediate reaction might be to dismiss the Uaxactun alignments as fortuitous. However, we have a plausible chronological development at Uaxactun itself obtained by combining the archaeological and alignment evidence. This suggests another interpretation: that the other E-groups were nonfunctional copies of the Uaxactun observatory. Just as in the later stages at Uaxactun itself, they preserved a ritual significance that had its origin in real observations but no longer needed to be confirmed or reinforced by repeating those same observations. Unfortunately, as dating evidence has slowly emerged, it no longer seems that Uaxactun Group E was a particularly early example of the genre. Many other E-groups were built at around the same time—the transition between the Late Preclassic Period and Early Classic Period around C.E. 200—and at least two seem to have been considerably earlier. Even more recently, other pseudo E-structures have been discovered that date from the Late Classic period (as late as the seventh century C.E.) but appear to incorporate functional solstitial alignments. A more sustainable argument, then, is that while Maya rulers in the northern Peten over a considerable time span desired to have one of these ritualistic complexes, the actual solar observations mattered more to some than to others.

If solar observations were carried out at Uaxactun and some other E-groups, what then was their purpose? One possibility is that they related— at least originally—to an empirical calendar based upon direct observations of the horizon rising position of the sun. Such a calendar existed in this region, it has been suggested, before an invasion from the north in about C.E. 400 brought greater emphasis on the more abstract 260-day cycle that came to characterize calendars throughout Mesoamerica. Recent statistical analysis of the alignments incorporated in the Group-E-type assemblages does support the conclusion that many of them incorporated sunrise alignments on dates marking calendrically significant intervals. Even so, it may be misleading to portray even the functional E-groups as observatories, since they were primarily ritual complexes. It seems more likely that, where solar observations actually took place, they served as much as anything to regulate calendrically related rituals or ceremonials. One of these may well have been the ball game—a sacred game played all over Mesoamerica and claimed by some scholars to have been played at the equinoxes, since they symbolized the time when the forces of nature were in balance. A great many of the E-

groups are found close to a ball court—an arena where such games were played. In many cases, though, any association between the sun and the timing of a ceremony such as the ball game did not need to be reaffirmed by making actual observations.

See also:

Alignment Studies; Equinoxes; Solstitial Directions.

Drombeg; Maya Long Count; Mesoamerican Calendar Round.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 288-293. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. World Archaeoastronomy, 441-461. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Aveni, Anthony F., Anne S. Dowd, and Benjamin Vining. "Maya Calendar Reform? Evidence from Orientations of Specialized Architectural Assemblages." Latin American Antiquity 14 (2003), 159-178.

Aylesworth, Grant R. "Astronomical Interpretations of Ancient Maya E-Group Architectural Complexes." Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 18 (2004), 34-66.

Whittington, E. Michael, ed. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, 42-45. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

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